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October 6, 2006

cause célèbre

(En route to Chicago for an American Bar Association meeting.) Last week, a leaked National Intelligence Estimate made headlines by asserting that the Iraq war was a “cause célèbre” for jihadists. That topic has since been knocked out of the newspapers by a congressional sex scandal, tragedy in Amish country, and other riveting stories. However, I’ll weigh in belatedly and say that I don’t believe the “cause célèbre” argument was ever a good one to make against the war. First of all, it’s a fancy French phrase. Besides, we sometimes should and must do things that rile up the other side. If (contrary to fact), the invasion of Iraq had been wise, legal, and in the best interests of that nation, it would still have given terrorists a “cause célèbre.”

For me, a sufficient argument against the war is that it violates one of the few substantial elements of international law. Members of the United Nations simply may not invade one another without the explicit authorization of the Security Council. However, this argument is not politically very potent, because it seems legalistic and likely to uphold UN interests against those of the US.

Thus I would emphasize a different argument, which (as Henry Kissinger once said on another topic) has the “additional merit of being true.” The invasion of Iraq was part of the war on terror, but it was a colossal strategic error in that war. It helped the jihadists by knocking off a hated secular dictatorship, under such conditions that fundamentalist movements would likely replace it. It put hundreds of thousands of mostly young Americans right into the Middle East where they were vulnerable to being attacked; more have died there than on 9/11. It created a profound dilemma: Winning the counter-insurgency would require deep and daily engagement with Iraqis, which would be extremely dangerous; whereas protecting US troops in Iraq would require separating them from the population, which would make it impossible for them to succeed. Above all, the invasion made the United State responsible for handling a violent struggle among Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds, Arabs and Persians that we are poorly equipped to understand, let alone resolve. And if we fail, the consequences range from a massive loss of credibility, to terrible suffering, to the creation of a jihadist state at the head of the Persian Gulf.

In fact, one could say that there were only two ways for jihadists to achieve a strategic victory against the United States after 9/11: by obtaining and using weapons of mass destruction on US soil, or by luring us into the middle of a civil war in the Mideast. We gave them the latter victory and must devoutly hope to avoid the former. That we also gave terrorist recruiters a “cause célèbre” is almost beside the point.

October 6, 2006 10:49 AM | category: Iraq and democratic theory | Comments


From Jim Vorhees:


I disagree with your analysis and partly agree with your conclusion. On the latter, we have indeed given the jihadists conditions most likely to give them victory. But will they get it? More on that later.

As to how we got here. I'm less certain that had we acted with a better understanding of conditions within Iraq that we would be at this horrifying juncture. Fundamentalist movements have yet to replace Saddam, and while they are certainly evident among the insurgents, are they dominant? Is Moqtada Al-Sadr fundamentalist or nationalist at heart, as nationalism would be understood among Iraq's Shi'ites? The civil conflict that we see is a recent phenomenon. Civil dislike is ancient; the open conflict, the killing dates back to January.

I would argue that we did not have to face the dilemma you mention. The British did not when they first went into Basra. Our troops were acting according to operational dicta that assumed the dilemma. More recently, the Army has, fitfully, tried to adopt a more British-like posture.

We made several key errors immediately after the regime collapsed and, for the first year or more, rarely did what we needed to. Had we, say, not disbanded the military, not forbade former Baathists to serve in the new regime, and devolved power more quickly to at least local governments, then Iraqis might have had a stronger sense that the new regime was theirs.

This is, of course, speculation. At least some of the consequences you mention are upon us, and failure looms nearby. Success of any kind stands distant.

But even if we fail, the jihadists may not win. We tend to equate the anti-Western, anti-American sentiments of many in the Muslim world with jihadist thought. While the ranks of the fundamentalists have swelled, history may not be on their side. In Iran, for example, despite the power of the mullahs and the victory of Ahmadinejad, there is, it seems, strong sentiment favoring a more liberal, less anti-Western regime. Jordan found its son, Zarqawi, repulsive after his attack on the Amman hotel. Egypt, the font of much Arab thought, seems comfortable as a society reasonably open to Western influence. Kuwaitis, from what I know, still regard us as friends.

All that could change, but the kind of puritanism that the jihadists profess has had a short shelf life in history.

That is not to say that our failure in Iraq will not have serious consequences--few of those arguing for rapid withdrawal have addressed what they might be. Nor is it to say that American interests will be served no matter what happens. We have made a mess of things that will not soon be set right. It is to say that the region and its peoples are complex enough that we cannot know who will have won or lost a decade or more hence.

Pardon the length of this post, but thanks for the chance to scribble down some thoughts that have been brewing for a while.

October 9, 2006 5:56 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Peter Levine

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